The Roots of Smuts’ Holism Theory


Jan Christian Smuts was born on 24 May 1870 on his the family farm, Bovenplaats, near Malmesbury, in the then Cape Colony. During his childhood, he often went out alone, exploring the surrounding countryside, while performing his duty of looking after the free roaming cattle, this instilled a lifelong a passion for nature, which was “an early awakening of the feelings and faculties that were shaping him as a person and would one day shape his thought about the atom, the cell, mind, personality, the whole universe” (Hancock, 1962, p. 8). In those days a full formal education was typically reserved only for the first son, and being the second son of the family dictated, by rural custom, that he would remain working on the farm. One of Smuts’ favorite boyhood recollection in later years was walking around the ‘veld’ with old Adam, an aged black servant of the family, who loved to teach him various aspects of the veld, like where to dig for edible roots and look for tortoises (Hancock, 1962). Based on Smuts’ writings about his childhood it can be assumed that his rudimentary ideas of Holism were mystical insights or peak experiences while walking in the veld (Translation, countryside).

When Smuts was twelve years old his older brother died and, and now as the eldest son of the family, he was then sent to school. Despite his late start he caught up with his classmates within four years and went to Victoria College in Stellenbosch where he attained a combined degree in Arts and Science. At Victoria College he won the Ebden scholarship for Christ’s College Cambridge University, where he studied Law, and became the only person ever to have written both parts of the Law Tripos in one year and achieve a Double First. While at Cambridge Smuts was described by Professor Maitland, a leading figure among English legal historians, as the most brilliant student he had ever met. Lord Todd said in 1970 that “in 500 years of the College’s history, of all its members, past and present, three had been truly outstanding: John Milton, Charles Darwin and Jan Smuts” (Smuts, 1994, p. 19).

The academic origins of Smuts’ holistic thinking can be traced back to his days as a student at Cambridge University. In 1891, as a first-year law student he wrote a commentary called The Nature and Function of Law in the History of Human Society. Although never entirely completed it was nevertheless published as a shortened version, then titled, Law, A Liberal Study in the college magazine (Anker, 2001). In this article Smuts applied an developmental approach to culture, and understood it as a “gradual evolutionary liberation from the biological realm (the origin of the word “liberal” in his title)” (Anker, 2001, p. 43), Moreover, he also viewed the history of civil law from a developmental perspective as developing from an archaic law in “the embryonic stages in society” to a sophisticated law in modern “Teutonic Europe” (Smuts, 1893/1996a, p. 40), and argued that public law evolved “from the primitive Family to the modern State” (Smuts, 1893/1996a, p. 41). He pointed out “that public laws gradually progressed towards more and more respect for individual freedom and greater unity within humanity” (Anker, 200, p. 43). Smuts (1893/1996) says that “[t]he Person is recognized more and more; the rights of personality become more and more inviolable,” with “one law for all humanity” as the endgame for the evolutionary process of civil rights (p. 41). All Smuts’ subsequent ideas on Holism and politics were a modification and further development on the basic ideas expressed in this article.

Shortly after the aforementioned article Smuts (1892) wrote an essay, On the Application of Some Physical Concepts to Biological Phenomena, where he attempted to point out the natural law that is responsible for the evolution of civil rights in culture. In this essay he points out that there is an inherent life-force in matter that accounts for the evolution from the inorganic to the organic world, and served as the “ultimate foundation for human evolution and the progress of civil society” (Anker, 2001, p. 43).

In 1895 he completed a book on Walt Whitman, after receiving an honorary grant, which allowed him to write on a topic of his own choosing. Shortly after finishing his book he submitted it to various publishers who did not accept the book, likely due to commercial reasons. The book was later published in 1973 as Walt Whitman: A Study in the Evolution of Personality. The aim of this book was to investigate the development of Walt Whitman’s personality “like any other organism” (Smuts in Hancock and Van der Poel, 1966, p. 53). Smuts understood Whitman as “an organic personality developing all his lifetime like a product of nature, travelling through the successive cycles of his growth.” (Smuts 1895/1973, p. 30) Smuts believed personalities like Whitman and Goethe had achieved it highest possible development and therefore would prove to be valuable subjects of study when trying to understand the personality as a whole. Smuts (1895/1973), believed that Whitman was “a true personality, strong, original, organic; . . . a whole and sound piece of manhood” (p. 30) and that a study of his life, like other evolved wholes, could reveal a deeper insight in the nature of the evolutionary process of the universe.

Smuts believed that the human mind and personality was not “an herbarium” of dead species; it was rather a synthetic, creative whole, a “Hegelian Idee inherent in the personality” (Smuts in Anker, 2001, p.44), where its diverse appearances are more than the sum of its parts. “The application of the idea of evolution has hitherto been too analytic,” Smuts lamented and instead advocated a holistic view of evolution because “life is the most synthetic phenomenon we know” (Smuts 1895/1973, p. 31).

Between 1911 and 1912 Smuts worked on a manuscript called An Inquiry into the Whole. In this manuscript he continued to deepen the ideas explored in his earlier writing. It is in this manuscript that Smuts first coined the term “Holism”, which later appeared in print in 1926 in Holism and Evolution. In 1912 Smuts sent a draft of the book to his lifelong Cambridge friend and mentor, H.J. Wolstenholme. To Smuts’ disappointment Wolstenholme was highly critical of the book and skeptical about the concept of Holism (Hancock, 1962). Many of the ideas contained within An Inquiry in the Whole, was later expanded upon and reworked in Holism and Evolution.

This blog post is an extract from a presentation at the Fourth International Integral Theory Conference 2015, The Integral Jan Smuts, by myself and Dr. Robert Weathers. All citations in the blog can be found in the reference list in The Integral Jan Smuts, on my Resources page of my website.